As Florida’s death penalty laws continue to face challenges and changes, all of Manatee County’s death row inmates have each been granted a stay or hearing in their cases.
Of the 362 inmates currently on death row in Florida, three are from Manatee County: Delmer Smith, Daniel Burns Jr. and Melvin Trotter.
Smith, 45, was sentenced to death on May 28, 2013, by Circuit Judge Peter Dubensky following a unanimous recommendation from the same jury that found him guilty of first-degree murder for the fatal beating of Kathleen Briles in her Terra Ceia home on Aug. 3, 2009.
On June 6, Circuit Judge Diana Moreland issued an order following a case management hearing on Smith’s motion for post-conviction relief granting an evidentiary hearing on six of seven claims.
The six claims make several allegations of ineffective counsel. Included is a claim arguing that detectives with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have a search warrant for Smith’s cell phone and that the June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California requiring such a warrant should be retroactively applied to his case.
Moreland ordered that Smith be present during the hearing set from Oct. 2-5. The next status conference is set for 10:30 a.m. Sept. 5. Smith could get a new trial depending on the outcome of the hearing.
Burns, 72, was sentenced to death on June 2, 1988, for the Aug. 18, 1987, fatal shooting of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeffrey Dale Young.
Trotter, 56, was sentenced to death May 18, 1987, for the June 16, 1986, fatal stabbing of Palmetto grocery store owner Virgie Langford.
In April, the Florida Supreme Court granted Burns and Trotter stays based on another pending case in Hitchcock v. State.
Smith is currently housed at Florida State Prison, a maximum security prison for men in Raiford. Burns and Trotter are housed at Union Correctional Institution, another maximum security prison for men in Raiford.
Florida’s death penalty sentencing laws went into limbo following the Jan. 12, 2016, U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst vs. Florida that ruled it was unconstitutional that in Florida a judge, not a jury, has the ultimate say in whether to sentence someone to death.
The state Legislature worked quickly to address the issue, passing corrective legislation on March 7, 2016.
The case was remanded back to the Florida Supreme Court, and on Oct. 14 it ruled that a jury must find that at least one aggravating factor was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that the aggravating factor is sufficient and the aggravating factor outweighs the mitigating circumstance. In Hurst v. State, the court also ruled that a unanimous vote by the jury is necessary to impose death.
On the same date, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Perry v. State that Hurst also required a unanimous vote by a jury to sentence someone to death. As a result, the decision ruled the new legislation passed did not address all the unconstitutional issues raised by Hurst.
Later in a Dec. 22 ruling in Asay v. State, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that only death row inmates whose cases were finalized after the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring vs. Arizona qualified for a resentencing hearing. Ring vs. Arizona requires a jury to find aggravating factors in order for the imposition of the death penalty.
The current pending case Hitchcock v. State is arguing that Hurst should apply retroactively to all death row inmates.
The Legislature again made it a top priority, and on March 13 Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill changing the state statute requiring a unanimous vote by a jury in order to impose the death penalty.
Judges across the state have ruled repeatedly that although the state’s sentencing scheme had been ruled unconstitutional and needed to be corrected, it did not eliminate the death penalty all together or prevent prosecutors from seeking it.